About once a year, I do a little digital reset to help make my online life a little more pleasant. I’m not advocating that anybody do the same as me, but I hope that sharing some of what I do might help inspire you to manage the technology in your life in a way that reduces stress or distractions, and makes your time in front of the screen more fun.
A necessary caveat: I have a fairly distorted social media presence, and I have a higher willingness than most to follow some fairly technical steps to manage what my devices and apps are doing. As a result, some of these strategies may not be a good fit if you don't have the patience or interest to follow them, but hopefully they're useful as starting points. The good news is, even if you try any of these ideas and screw them up, it’s usually not too big a deal.
Key principles of a digital reset
There are a few underlying ideas that I use to evaluate the technology in my life. One essential caveat here is that, like everyone, I have a lot less choice over the technology I use for my professional life, so while these principles would ideally apply all the time, in practice this is generally only about my non-work tech habits.
- Only intentional information: The ideal is that the only things I see or experience when looking at my phone or computers are things I actively chose to see there, not just whatever others have chosen to shovel at me without regard to whether it causes stress or distraction.
- App defaults are designed for the companies that make them, not for users: This is one of the most key things to understand about the tech we use today — by default, it only serves the needs of the companies that make the tech, and they generally act like their app or service is the only one we use, and the most important one we use.
- You aren’t gonna need it: There’s a ton of FOMO about uninstalling, disabling, or removing things on our devices, because we worry a lot about “what if I need it?” In coding, we commonly use the abbreviation “YAGNI” to dissuade ourselves from taking on unnecessary technical debt, and the same can apply to being users of technology. If you really need something, you can always reinstall it or turn it back on.
Putting it in practice: Social Media
- Twitter: On my Twitter account, I have begun each of the last few years by unfollowing everyone and starting over with what information I want to consume. I first wrote up the idea of unfollowing everyone a few years ago, and was pretty surprised at what a strong reaction the idea got. Some of the reason for resetting my follows is to reflect my own changing interests in what I want to read or learn about, but also to ensure that I’m not (for example) just following some news account that only ever causes me stress when it updates. Twitter is a particularly complicated case for me because it’s where I have my own biggest following, and there are a lot of social expectations from my network there about whom I’ll follow; in years past, my unfollowing everyone has resulted in some fairly strong emotional responses. While that stuff can hurt, in truth, seeing how emotionally invested some people are in those dynamics only confirms exactly why it’s good to disconnect a bit. I still keep my DMs open if people need to message me, and I archive my previous follows into a list so I can still keep track of what people are sharing, so it’s not as extreme a move as it might seem. It's very easy to refollow people, and feels nice to be intentional about it.
- Facebook: I basically only check Facebook about once a month now, and it’s largely for a few small communities that I’m part of. Because Facebook essentially makes it impossible to bulk-manage relationships there, I can’t do a similar unfollowing, but I’ll be trying to remove connections in batches over the next year as part of an attempt to reset things there. Though I have far fewer followers on Facebook (about 50,000 vs. roughly 600,000 on Twitter), it’s incredibly noisy and stressful, so I’m doing what I can to largely disengage there. I don’t delete my account because I have a number of apps connected to Facebook that I can’t remove yet, and Facebook likely maintains shadow profiles of people with deleted accounts anyway, so I’d rather be able to affirmatively control what they’re doing with the data they have on me.
- Instagram: I very rarely use my Instagram account, and am not highly engaged there, so I won’t be making many changes. I don't agree with a lot of the choices made by Facebook (which owns Instagram), but my Instagram account doesn't actively make my life worse. For the most part, no news is good news on that network, and I don’t expect that to change much.
Putting it in practice: Devices and accounts
- Email: My biggest communications change for 2021 is that I’ll be deprecating my personal email address firstname.lastname@example.org after more than 20 straight years of using that for almost everything. In that time, I’ve signed up for literally thousands of different apps, sites and services, and been subscribed to thousands of newsletters, a few of them even by choice. After having had that address sold, shared and published for decades, the incoming flow of messages is, as you might imagine, something of a mess. If you need to reach me, use email@example.com, and I’m planning on spending a little bit off time on a continuous basis over the next year to migrate all my different accounts off of the old address.
- Phone: One other kind of digital reset that I do fairly frequently is for my devices. Rather than upgrading to major new versions of my phone OS, I tend to back up my device once a year (if you have an iPhone, you can go here to follow Apple’s instructions on how to archive a copy of your entire phone to your computer; just backing up data on iCloud isn’t as complete) and then wipe the OS and start from scratch. One of the great things about this method is that I try not to reinstall apps unless I really need them, and when I do, I can be much more aggressive about limiting access to data like location or my contacts, and much less permissive about which apps can send notifications. I always have a backup in case I theoretically want to go back to my old phone setup, but in practice I never actually need it. This year, I got a new phone (the iPhone mini is pretty great!), which I only do once every few years, and that was a great time to not migrate all my old data and settings from the old device. Since I just did this recently, I won't do it again for the new year. It may be partially just a placebo effect, but I do feel like devices like phones and tablets are a lot more responsive and less flaky when they get reset every once in a while.
- Computer: Basically, I do a less aggressive version of the same kind of reset with my computers, though this is infrequent, so again I don't do this timed with the New Year reset of everything else, but rather when I'm doing a big operating system update or in the rare case that I get a new computer. Much more important to me is that I download a backup of all the data that I have on various cloud services, so that I have a local copy and can back it up on my own. If you want to do the same, you can download your data from Google, Facebook, Apple, or most other major services by following those links or just searching "download [app name] data". If you download those entire archives, they can take up a pretty significant amount of storage (especially if you've also backed up your entire phone onto your computer), so just make sure you have enough space. And this is a good time to remind you to back up your stuff. I use a big hard drive with Apple's Time Machine for a local backup, and then Backblaze to backup my stuff in the cloud. If you only have a small number of key files you want to keep backed up, the lowest-end storage that comes with Dropbox or iCloud or Google Drive can often be enough space to store vital documents.
- Services and Tools: I also use the digital reset as a good moment to switch over to other tools or apps that I feel like I should be trying out. After dabbling with it for years, I finally made DuckDuckGo my default search engine in my browsers a few years ago, just to slightly reduce the amount of data Google has about me. I still recommend folks install Firefox as a browser on their laptop or desktop computers, though Apple's Safari is a great choice, too. If you haven't done it, this is a good time to start enabling two-factor authentication on all your accounts (you can do it gradually, if it's overwhelming to switch them all at once); if you do, I like Authy to help keep track of the login codes. Some of this stuff can feel like a chore, but a lot of it is surprisingly painless and you feel good after it's done.
Putting it in practice: People
Last, but certainly not least, there's the human factor in all of this. Making changes in your digital life is just like making any other lifestyle change that affects your health and wellness. People who care about you will support you in your choices, and encourage you to do the things that are sustainable. And, certainly, people who feel judged or insecure about you making positive changes will resist them. I'm still a bit stunned at the level of vitriol I got for unfollowing people on Twitter. My own family and closest friends don't even follow me on every social platform, so I'm not sure how strangers get to feeling like it matters so much, except that so much of this technology manipulates our emotions to make it feel as if it does.
But on the other hand, even just making a few positive changes can get you feeling a lot better about all the time we spend with our thumbs on the glass of our phones, or sitting behind a keyboard. I'm not a big believer in New Year's resolutions, or the idea that people should make sudden, drastic, cold turkey changes. But I do think that small, incremental improvements add up, and that the inevitable setbacks along the way are things we can help each other through, online just like we do offline.
It's worth it to challenge the default assumptions made about how technology should be in your life. Even the most well-intentioned creators of tech don't know how their work fits into your life. And that's not to mention the techies who aren't well-intentioned. So, here's to a new year of technology that is as positive and useful in your life as we were all promised tech could be.